When I was a little girl, I had this alien hijab that my grandmother stitched for me. The hijab was decked in embroidered pictures of galaxies and nebulas and what not. Grandmother had taken special care to weave a little alien with a hijab around her head, standing on the rings of Saturn. I had always wanted to reach out to that alien, because somehow she looked so much like me. Little did I know that one day my childish yearnings would come true.
The warm water gurgled in my porcelain tea cup, as little bubbles of fragrance gently spilt over. The tea leaves settled on the circular bottom, as a tear shaped almond bobbed up and down. I gazed into my evening cup of kahwa mulling over the day’s events. The slow motion within, somehow calmed my agitated whirlwind of thoughts.
Not for the first time that evening, the floorboards of grandmother’s houseboat shifted. My gaze automatically shifted to the crack at the far end of the wooden floorboards. A young girl’s white hand rose and waved, as she waggled her nails which were misty with frost. I stood up. A bit of my kahwa spilt over , soiling the front of my dress. The hand disappeared. The crack was somehow not visible under the thick veils of moonlight.
“Asifa!” “Asifa, jaan!” I turn around smilingly as grandmother calls my name. My headscarf flies behind me as I run towards her. Nestled on my favorite spot in her lap, I gaze at the Kashmiri waters.
“Look Asifa! Aren’t the Kashmiri waters beautiful? I believe that the moon also seems to wear a hijab!” she gestures .
“But who forces the moon to wear a hijab?” I innocently asked my gaze fixed on the reflection of the moon bobbing below us. “The sun of course!” sniffs grandmother frowning. Her undone hair cascades down her back. I’ve never seen her wear a headscarf like the rest of the women in our family. Odd! She tugs off my headscarf too, and kisses my hair. The floorboards shift again.
That night, I mustered up the courage to creep into the basement of grandmother’s houseboat. Illuminated by the dim moonlight, I took trembling steps down the flight of stairs. Biting the ends of my hijab in anxiety, I pulled the door open. An awe striking sight greeted me. A young girl clad in two interwoven sacks stood mid air, her feet hovering above the ground. The sack was studded with constellations of ethereally beautiful stars . I felt as though the girl had all the magnificence of our universe glistening between the fibres of her sack. I reached out to touch something I recognized as the milky way galaxy. She struck my hand, and glared at me, her blue-green eyes alit with anger. A sudden wave of guilt overtakes me as I cringe. A star breaks off her sack, and gently glides away. “ Did you have to break off now?”her shrill voice breaks the silence. The girl fixes me with a confused look .She has dimpled cheeks, and beautiful blue green eyes. She looks at me- seemingly confused. She rummages in her myriad pockets. Gently drawing out a piece of paper, she clears her throat and begins reading
“Greetings to you, ‘’o’’ owner! I am Sred. I come from the universe above.” Her eyes sparkled with tears as her voice began quivering. “My home town is a planet surrounded by strands of nebula. No one knows about my planet, though. ,” she stopped midway. “Walking on the ground is difficult. My ankles ache. I am not used to living here. My home is up there,” she gestures towards the sky. I feel as though Sred has a story to tell. I don’t interrupt her and wait for her to continue. I remember my alien headscarf and smile. Maybe the alien was in front of me.
“Had I known that a mere trial journey to earth would have been so risky, I would never have let her go! I don’t know where she is! I have searched everywhere for her!” Sred added as tears snaked down her cheeks.
“What do you mean?” I asked her. “My companion! My beloved companion Vrina who journeyed with me the to earth that night. She promised to be back by the next full moon night. Oh! twelve full moon nights have gone by, and Vrina has not returned!” she sobbed hysterically, falling to the ground.
“Where do you think you lost her?” I asked.
“Right here. In this land called Kashmir. Your land is very clearly visible from up there. It is a beautiful white spot engulfed by fire from two opposite ends. We feel violence from two opposite ends of Kashmir,” she says. . Wiping the soot from her cheeks, Sred looks up at me eagerly, her blue green eyes alit with a sudden spark of hope. “Will you help me find Vrina? Will you help me find her?”she asked.
I clutched the ends of my hijab and nodded. I couldn’t do anything, but nod.
“This is my grandmother’s shikara. This is my grandmother’s houseboat. You’ll have to disguise yourself and stay with me. You’ll have to learn how to walk on the ground without limping. You’ll have to wear proper ankle-length dresses like good little girls. You’ll have to……”
“I’ll do anything. I promise!” declared Sred as I smiled. I put my arms around Sred’s bare shoulders and propelled her to my wardrobe.
I chose a beautiful pink dress for Sred, complete with a purple hijab. I helped her put on the dress and struggled to brush the tangles from her hair. I tried tying the hijab onto her head after pinning up her hair into a good little girl’s bun. She struck my hand hard. The hijab fell from my hands, as I cried out in pain.
“Why?” she asked roughly, her blue green eyes alit with malevolence. Ignoring the agony that ran through my wrist, I tried to talk to Sred as calmly as possible.
“Sred! This is Kashmir! In our land, it is essential for all girls to wear this hijab! Come on, now! Be a good girl and don’t give me trouble,” I said. Sred looked at me arrogantly, and frowned.
“Do the Kashmiri girls want to wear this hijab?” she asked. I felt as though my soul had shifted within me. Sred’s question relentlessly bounced off the empty walls of my mind. “I don’t know Sred. No one has ever asked the Kashmiri girls this question,” she replied.
“And if someone was to ask you this question?” she added, pressing upon me. Swarmed by the waves of self realization I undid the tight knot below my chin and let the hijab slip off my head. In the mirror, I noticed how nice my hair looked. I fastened some bracelets on her wrists and put an arm around her. “Look frightened, petrified and victimized!” I murmured, as we went up to grandmother’s room.
Grandmother sat drinking kahwa and smiled at me as I entered her room. She looked at my undone hair spilling down my shoulders and gave me an approving nod. “Grandmother! This is Hina. Hina is a traumatized fourteen year old Syrian refugee. I found her trembling near our houseboat and I thought I’d get her to you,”.
Sred raised an eyebrow in anger. “I’m not Hina! I’m Sred!” she barked, as Grandmother’s chin trembled with laughter. “Sred is Hina’s nickname,” I added hastily, giving Sred a warning look. Grandmother examined Sred’s blue green eyes, and ran a slender finger around her wrists.
“What about your ma and your baba?” asked Grandma, as Sred glared at me. “Her ma and baba lost her in the crowd. She was thrust onto a refugee boat with people she didn’t know,” I answered.
“Hina, do you mind living with us over here on this shikara till your people come for you?” she asked. “I would be honored,” whispered Sred, as Grandmother cupped her face in her wrinkled palms and kissed her.
Turning towards me, she placed a hand on her waist and smiled. “I’m sure Asifa would like to show you around the shikara !” she murmured, as I nodded eagerly. I showed her the kitchen, the washrooms, my room, the balcony area, and the lounge. In the kitchen, I turned on the tap and she cringed as a cold stream of water gushed out.
Today I sit on my balcony and leaf through the pages of my diary. As a twelve year old, I had conveniently recorded our five day quest for Vrina. We did find Vrina after all.
DAY I- 4 October 2001
We started our quest for Vrina today. Sred described Vrina to be just a little taller than me. We decided to visit the local orphanage. We looked into each room, and stared into blue-green eyes which resembled those of Sred. Sred was dejected, yet I convinced her not to lose hope. I bought her some kites to fly. However, somehow, she wanted the vegetable sack that the kite seller stored his kites in. I had to pay him extra, and then explained the whole situation to grandmother before sleeping.
In our bedroom that night, Sred spread out her sack on the bed. It was an ordinary vegetable sack tied together with thick knots of fiber. Suddenly, Sred’s eyes lit up with ecstasy. She gestured to a star drawn in blue crayon on the far ends of the sack. The star had her so excited. I tried calming her down, and convinced her to get some sleep. I promised to take her to visit the kite seller tomorrow to inquire about the sack.
DAY 2- 5th October 2001
We visited the kite seller today. They call him Ali.
Ali told us that the vegetable sack was given to him by Fatima the local flower seller. Fatima had filled the vegetable sack with flowers when Ali was to get married. He took us to Fatima’s stall.
Fatima was a beautiful young girl and pretty amused by what Ali told her. She had found this sack on her doorstep with two puppies inside. Sred examined the puppies carefully. There was a blue star on the paw of one of the puppies as well.
Fatima claimed that her grandmother had sent her the puppies. Her grandmother dwells in the jungles adjacent to my grandmother’s shikara. We felt as though destiny was replaying itself and propelling us backward. While going backwards, we were somehow moving forward. Life was nothing but a confused blur.
I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.
Finding Fatima’s grandmother’s house was difficult. I fell down and scraped my knees and Sred had to carry me.
We were quite deep in the jungle now. According to Fatima’s directions, her grandmother’s house was still quite far. I felt Sred weakening beneath me. We decided to spend today’s night in the jungle. I told Sred to pluck some wild berries for dinner.
Day 3- 6th October 2001
The sky is decked in the brightest shades of dawn. The rays of the sun trace along the fluffiness of the clouds, making us marvel. We continue our journey. Sred finds a blue star drawn on a tree bark as well. These blue stars really get her going. She doesn’t mind me leaning on her shoulder, as I hobble along.
After an hour of strenuous walking, we finally reach ‘’grandmother’s house’’. It is a huge building, with tinted glass windows. We Kashmiri girls have been warned against tinted windows. I think Sred sensed the reluctance in my footsteps, and she roughly pulled me inside.
I couldn’t help it. Before I knew, I was inside the tinted windows. The house was massive. How could a solitary old woman live completely alone in such a huge palace? They were seemingly never ending series of rooms and corridors and stairs. Young women with frightened faces scuttled from corridor to corridor. A young woman hastily glanced at us, and lowered her hijab over her face. I felt Sred’s anger. The woman dropped something. I bent to pick it up. She had dropped a price tag which fell from around her neck. It read – Rs. 1, 15,000.
Why would a real live woman wear a price tag around her neck? Sred gestured towards a blue star on the banister, as we climbed up.
It wasn’t only that woman. Every woman had a price tag around her neck. Were these women for sale? If so, where was Fatima’s grandmother? Where was the jolly, old grandma who sent adorable puppies to her beautiful granddaughter?
As we climbed upstairs, a young girl shot us looks of contempt. “Where are your price tags?” she asked . “Price tags? Why would we wear price tags? Well, we aren’t for sale!” I replied. “Aw, stop talking nonsense. Obviously, all of us are for sale!” she barked angrily. “Why are you here by the way?” she asked. “Well, we want to meet grandmother. My friend, Hina, here, thinks that maybe grandmother will know about the whereabouts of her long lost sister, Vrina”
“Well you sure have guts!” replied the girl. “Obviously grandmother knows about the whereabouts of every long lost girl in Kashmir, India and Pakistan. My name is Mariam. Why don’t you come up to our quarters and get some rest? You look pretty tired and your knees are bleeding. I’ll get you something to eat and then we’ll arrange a meeting with grandmother tomorrow morning, okay?” she says, softening down.
“I don’t want the other girls to suspect anything,” she gives us two price tags, and a pleading look. Moments later, Sred and I are for sale.
Day 4- 7th October 2001
Despite the limited resources Mariam had, she gave us a pretty decent dinner. I noticed how badly the other girls treated Mariam. Maybe this is why she was so short-tempered at times. “Friends of Mariam will be like Mariam!” one girl had scorned. The three of us slept on the same bed, our limbs entwining together.
The next morning, Mariam volunteered to take grandmother’s breakfast to her chambers. “Who sent you here?” she asks. “Fatima. Fatima is a flower-seller. She sent us here,” I reply.
We follow Sred down the stairs to Grandmother’s chambers. Mariam opens the door, as I cringe in the corner with Sred. The morning sun’s luminescent rays mock at me. I feel almost as though they’re asking me how much I cost. Moments later, Mariam emerges. “Go inside,” she whispers. I clutch Sred’s hand and walk into grandmother’s chambers with trembling footsteps.
Grandmother’s chambers were princely. A huge chandelier gave off a blinding yellow light. Grandmother was a booming old woman, with fierce, kohl-rimmed eyes. Huge gold necklaces dangled from around her neck and two diamonds hung from her elephant-like ears. Sred pointed towards a blue star on Grandmother’s fist.
“Salaam Grandmother!” I began respectfully, bowing low before her. “My name is Asifa, and this is my friend Hina!” “What- you want me to sell you at a higher price? You think you’re worth more money?” spat grandmother.
“No, grandmother, I beg to differ. My friend, Hina lost her sister, Vrina a little time back. Would you be aware of Vrina’s whereabouts?” I asked. “Vrina! Ha! Yes, I am aware of your sister’s whereabouts!” she barked.
“We call your sister the sack girl! Yes, Vrina, the sack girl! We send our girls to be sold in her sacks,” she sneered .
“Oh, kind grandma! Will you be so kind as to contribute to the reunion of these two long lost sisters by telling us where Vrina is?” I asked politely.
“I am selling Vrina to a Pakistani gentleman for a hefty amount. I won’t tell you where Vrina is!” Just as I raised my voice to protest, Sred placed an assuring hand on my shoulder. She waggled her frosty nails. Her finger cushions were almost magnetic. Strands of blue stars lingered mid air. It was almost as though Sred had been collecting the blue stars that we had stumbled upon during our journey. “Vrina!” “Vrina!” she called incessantly.
The blue stars found Vrina. A rope of blue stars pulled a sack towards Sred. The tightened ends sprang open as a young girl with blue green eyes stepped out. The two sisters embraced each other, as I looked on. Grandmother’s eyes were alit with horror as the three of us escaped, mounting a winding constellation of blue stars.
Day 5- 7th October 2001
I miss Sred.
Her planet hovers above my roof, as I smile up at the bead. My hair is bunched together with a rope of blue stars. For once, I’m clad in a sack with stars and galaxies. There were constellations on the sack, as I touched grandmother’s constellation. She appeared on the roof beside me, and smoothened my curls. Suddenly, she thrust my ragged alien hijab into my outstretched palms. I saw a beautiful blue star on the alien as well. The alien seemed to smile at me. For once, I smiled back.